Twitter accounts against gender-based violence tread a thin line between crime and the law.

AN ANONYMOUS Twitter account, posting accusations of sexual misconduct, has been suspended after its creation in July, after complaints were lodged to Twitter by the alleged perpetrators about the “false” accusations posted online.

The Twitter account @helpsurvivers  was created in response to the recent scourge of gender-based violence (GBV) and femicide that has plagued the country in the past month.

While some women have opted to publicly call out their alleged attackers in their personal Twitter accounts, others sent direct messages to the Twitter account, @helpsurvivers.

A list of 9 000 names was compiled from the anonymous accusations submitted to @helpsurvivers, along with those openly stated in tweets by Twitter users.

*Nura Smith, a survivor of sexual assault, told Wits Vuvuzela that although she was raped in 2017 she did not open a case against the rapist because the criminal justice system is “not victim-friendly”.

”Now it’s been just over two years,” said Smith. “Who do I go to first? What do I say? I can’t go to the police because they are going to say, ‘Where’s the evidence?’ Even then, if I manage to somehow go past the police then it has to go through the courts and there I’ll have to prove whether it happened or not. It’s just too complicated for me to open a case.”

When Smith saw the name of the man who raped her appear more than once on the @helpsurvivers timeline, she decided to also send in a direct message with his name.

Although Smith acknowledges the importance of social media as a tool to seek justice for past wrongs, she describes it as a “double-edged sword”.

“Social media gives women this space to vent that they would not have gotten in the courtroom, for example. If you’re angry you have to sit down in your little bench with your lawyer and keep it quiet” said Smith.

“If I come out on social media then I’m slapped with a defamation case in a place where I thought it would be safe to speak. There’s no real safe space. You can never truly run away from it,” she said.

According to advocate Brenda Madumise, digital vigilantism of naming and shaming alleged perpetrators such as @helpsurvivers, has provided victims of GBV with a platform to seek retribution without having to open a case and endure the inefficiency of the South African justice system.

Madumise of Wise Collective, a women-led initiative which represents GBV survivors pro bono, said low prosecution and conviction rates that side-line women result in survivors resorting to “self-help measures”.

“What has happened with naming and shaming is women disrupting [normal legal proceedings],” she said.

Emma Sadleir, social media lawyer and founder of The Digital Law Company, wrote in a statement which she posted to Twitter on September 9 that while she understands that victims of sexual offences may not want to lay criminal charges and use social media for its “cost-free and often effective course of action… We are living in a world of ‘guilty until proven innocent’, and as such, the reputational consequences on the accused can be tremendous and often irreparable”.

“Men have been brandished as rapists in the absence of a known accuser, any details of the alleged offence or any criminal charges being laid. Where those falsely accused are often eager to clear their names, it is impossible to answer a case if the details of the case are not known,” wrote Sadleir.

Madumise said, “It is interesting that [of the 9 000 named alleged sexual predators, the number of those that have taken action is] miniscule. It’s not more than 100 of them that have taken action. It tells you a story that most of them know what they have done and they don’t want to subject themselves to unnecessary scrutiny.”

Sadleir offered legal solutions to both alleged victims and alleged perpetrators, stating that if someone finds themselves on a naming and shaming list or is accused of a sexual offence on social media, they can sue for defamation, lay a criminal charge of crimen injuria, or infringement of dignity, or obtain a protection order if they know who is behind the account. If they do not, they can submit a request to Twitter to reveal the identity of the account holder or take to their own account to provide factual information to repair their reputation.

“Any person or media outlet who repeats or publishes the allegations is responsible for the publication. We warn people against jumping on the digital vigilantism bandwagon unless they can show that what they are publishing is true,” wrote Sadleir.

*Not their real name.


FEATURED IMAGE: South African Twitter users haven taken to the social media app this month to call out alleged offenders of sexual assault. Photo: @Lizo_Thwala Twitter account